Book review: Atari: Business is Fun

Talk to anyone who gamed during the medium's infant years of the 1970s and early 1980s, and Atari’s name is going to be repeated. The name is almost a synonym for that era, yet the company was much more. It was an innovator, and it ruled the industry for a period.

There's a boatload of history behind the company apart from the "eureka moment" with the Atari 2600, but it tends to be neglected. Something had to fill the gap, and Atari: Business is Fun is meant to do so. The book is part of a trilogy written by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel. If you're an Atari fan you might already have heard Vendel's name mentioned a few times.  He was one of the names behind the Atari Flashback, and is well reputed on AtariAge for what is reportedly a massive collection of memorabilia.

The trilogy comprises Business is Fun, Business is War and Last in Fun though the second and third books are not available yet. The first book covers Atari's origins, going up until the mid-1980s.

The trilogy itself is the result of years of research. Any scrap of information from an employee was hunted out; historical documents and memorabilia were gathered, and the project began to take shape. If you’ve been reading Neowin for a while now, you might remember me making a passing reference to this book in Atari’s anniversary article. Here we are now with a copy and a review.

Curt and Marty have provided me with access to a PDF copy of Atari: Business is Fun, allowing me to use some of the unique imagery from within. In doing so I've tried to remove any context, for the book itself weaves things together and the review should be more of an assessment.

 

Design

The cover of the book is a plain, professional affair with a minimum of artwork. It relies on the retro company logo, using the classic Atari typeset and a single stripe of rainbow coloring. There isn't much artwork on the front cover, and it comes across as an exercise in tasteful minimalism.

Design has clearly been pored over with the book, and it's filled with neat touches and designs. The typeface used is a serif, but it's not quite like anything I've seen before. It isn't Cambria, it isn't Lucida, and it isn't Times New Roman. It's a little bit more special, and it's a key part of the book's presentation.

This same font is used throughout, so if there are ever future reprints it'll be an essential. You'll notice the image below (a snippet from the first chapter) begins the paragraph with a dropped capital.

 

An example of the drop cap's use in the first chapter.

It's classy, but not over-designed, and that's always a good thing. It's quite "magazine-y" in this respect, but it needs to be since each chapter is very long.

The very long chapters are a part of the design; Chapter 1 is around 40 pages in length, and many of them are densely packed with text. Each chapter is further broken down into smaller segments, so it doesn't actually feel nearly as long as it is. There's always a sense of progression due to the new headings and dropped capitals.

 

The "Review in Images" comes at the end of each long chapter, recapping everything with some fantastic photography. Imagery is at the end of a chapter, rather than in the middle of the book. It beats having to jump through the book (because we've all taken a peek at what comes next doing that), and it beats having lots of pictures right beside the text.

 

Content

Design rarely makes or breaks a book, but the content is the ultimate factor. With Business is Fun, you can see that the content has been their main focus. It begins with a foreword from numerous figures in the industry, including Ted Dabney himself.

There's a real feeling of history with his foreword as he recalls a childhood without zip codes and area codes, but it also sheds light on Atari's history. Dabney's foreword is only a couple of pages long, but it manages to lend a lot of value to the book, also dispelling a claim from Bushnell that he had designed a circuit to replace a computer in his daughter's bedroom. Dabney states that he was responsible for this.

Even Ralph Baer, the so-called "Father of Video Games", contributes. As one of the people responsible for the first home console (the Magnavox Odyssey), Baer is able to add more weight still. With the Magnavox console pre-dating the 2600, Baer has his own claim to fame - instead, he congratulates all the "unsung heroes" of Atari for their work, and there's a feeling of camaraderie between the two big companies of the day.

As briefly mentioned in the 'Design' section, this review is comprised of 12 huge chapters, broken down to smaller parts. Each part is chronologically structured, with the main chapter being numerically identified and the parts being named.

"Lights, Camera, Ampex" is the first part of chapter one, and it kicks off with the years prior to the company's arrival on the scene. The writing style is quite light, as the title would suggest. The topic might bore some, despite its cultural relevance. Games are a fun medium and some people could find scholarly writing on the topic a turn-off, so they should be happy with this.

It's lightly written but not lazily; wording like "cosmic kismet" are reminders that this book wasn't cobbled together hastily. Yet when touches like these rear their head, it's done naturally. There's no forced feeling to it; it's there and it works.

Goldberg's writing experience is the reason for such fluid writing, and factoids also slip into the book here and there. Early in the book, for example, it's mentioned that Dabney drove a '56 Mercedes 180. You don't need to know this, but it's there and it doesn't become a focal point. It appears and disappears neatly. There's no explanation why he picked a Merc, and that's actually not bad. We don't need to know.

 

A Mercedes 180, similar to the one Dabney would have driven.

Doubtless this information will be controversial. You'll have some readers wondering why we should care about Dabney's choice of sedan at all. The book is close to 800 pages in PDF form and, depending on what size of page the physical copy uses, it might be longer still. While I liked these details I don't think they're essential either.

Some highly professional writers will no doubt balk at infrequent use of... multiple exclamation marks!!! It's not done too often, but there's an example below with no real context:

While I know I've mentioned the historic appeal of the content, there's more to Business is Fun than some history. There's some great insight into the culture and creative minds at work. It takes some very forward-thinking people to see something like Spacewar!, and then decide to try and bring it to the home.

Atari's cultural significance can't be underestimated. There likely have been plenty of people inspired by the company, and there are hopefully readers here who can remember unboxing Atari consoles. If you've happy memories, let us know in the comments.

Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney are also a big part of the content, for obvious reasons. The two men could be considered visionaries for shaping the company, and the collated information goes a long way to giving an idea of how the two men worked. While the Atari of today and the Atari of yesteryear are radically different, the two names are inexorably linked with the company.

There are numerous angles to approach the company's history from, and not everyone will approach it in the same way. Hardcore fans of the company will doubtless look at the book differently to anyone else, but so too will those who grew up with Nintendo and Sega at the forefront of the industry. Some people might not even read the book for what it is, instead getting access to a wealth of imagery with it.

I've already spoken about how pictures are actually incorporated into the book, but not about the pictures themselves. There's a lot of variation in what is shown. You have images from plenty of different sources, and many of them might never have been printed before.

Business cards and internal documents can all be seen, and there's a real nostalgic sense to their use. Historians of the era will know all about the Cold War situation and the whole "drop acid not bombs" ethos, but these pictures cast the era in a completely different light.

There's something fascinating about seeing entire internal documents printed. It might never have been intended for the public, and yet there's a clear cool factor to it being on display.

Did you know Atari's European HQ was in Tipperary, Ireland? It was then closed by NAMCO.

Employees are sitting in front of desks and old computer terminals in some pictures, but a turn of the page and you'll see employees sitting at a picnic. There's an odd juxtaposition of work and play on show, but it reflects the atmosphere of working at Atari.

I'm very happy content like this made it into the book, for it preserves the image of Atari during the glory days. There's a certain charm to the juxtaposition aforementioned, but the fact you can see the origins of a billion-dollar industry is enough to make some people nostalgic. You can see the allure videogames must have had when they first became popular.

These pictures form a backbone to the narrative, and yes, narrative could be considered a valid choice of wording. While it's a serious topic, the book itself could be read like a novel. The 'Review in Images' means that you can also skim a lot of the content and maintain a coherent understanding. It's maybe not how the book was intended to be read, but if it's possible you might as well expect people to try it.

Everything is handled chronologically, and it makes the entire book very easy to follow. Treat it like a novel and you've got a real-world story of a company. Treat it as a piece of history or culturally relevant information, and you've got a book that manages to cover a rarely-explored topic.

 

Conclusion

Business is Fun is an insider look into a company that seemed to rise endlessly throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The company seemed to herald a bright future for the medium and the industry that had wrapped around it. Nowadays it might be a much more common pastime, but it's always nice to see where from where it spawned.

On that note, it's hard to recommend not buying the book. It's easily read and packed full of content you might never have seen before. There aren't many tomes relating to Atari, and that means there's room for a definitive book on the company. I can't say that Business is Fun is destined to be the measurement all other Atari books are compared to, but it is worthy of respect.

The effort needed to make this book a reality have to have been gargantuan, so there's something to be admired in it. The depth and breadth of the research is commendable. The book itself is long - perhaps overly so, depending on who you ask.

Yet it's difficult to argue against the book's selling point. It isn't for everyone and it never really was meant to be. For the niche market that's going to appreciate another book on the company it can only be a good addition. Even those interested in learning about gaming history will make up a small market.

Make no mistake, I'm not saying this is bad for what it is. The market it's for will doubtless appreciate it, but my main concern is that it might slip under the radar for many consumers. If that happens, then it's a true shame. Marty and Curt have put a lot of time into this book and there has to be something hefty behind it for Dabney himself to write a foreword.

It's one of a very small number of books I've read that works both as a novel and as historically relevant information. It happens to be the first relating to games as a medium, and I can't fault the approach. It might not be an essential work to have on your shelf, but if Atari's influence has had any impact on your life, then you'd be mad to dismiss it without some consideration first.

Mercedes image via Wikipedia

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